Jagdip Singh, Weatherhead School of Management
The images the world saw on Monday, April 10 were shocking — a man with a bloodied face being physically dragged by police officers down the aisle of a United Airlines flight in Chicago, with smartphones capturing the entire incident. It all started with what should have been, but failed to be, a customer interaction focused on competent problem-solving: To accommodate United employees who needed to get to Louisville for their next shift, the airline asked four passengers — already on board — to give up their seats in exchange for a cash incentive. One of the four, Dr. David Dao, refused to disembark, and the confrontation escalated into a debacle that went viral around the world

That spectacular customer service failure was compounded when United CEO Oscar Munoz  issued a statement the following day that said in part: “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are…  when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions… [he] became more and more disruptive and belligerent.” 

Not until the third day, did Oscar Munoz drop the pretense of empathy to competently take full responsibility (“that’s on me”) and apologize unconditionally (“I feel shame.”).  Time will tell if this is too late to recover the $255 loss in United’s market value in 48 hrs since its single service failure.

Not all interactions with upset customers are this dramatic or damaging, but it’s illustrative of the common lack of understanding of the fundamental rules of effective customer problem solving:  Customers want competent solutions, not apologies, sympathies or “respect” talk.  Too many customer service scripts overemphasize empathy and apology at the expense of doing competent work to generate useful problem-solving options. Above all, as the United example demonstrates, frontline interactions with dissatisfied customers must be guided by common sense.

Putting frontline strategies to the test

In recent research with my colleagues Detelina Marinova and Sunil Singh, I examined the language of face-to-face frontline problem-solving interactions and how it influences customer satisfaction in real time. We based our research on 99 customer service interactions from the reality television series “Airline” (100 episodes in the U.K. and 18 episodes in the U.S. between 1998 and 2006) to determine the impact of frontline employees’ problem-solving and relational work on customer satisfaction. We used fly-on-the-wall (FoTW) video recordings of these interactions to obtain observational data in natural settings with no scripting, yet with the consent of all parties.

We found that the service scripts commonly used by organizations — including language choice, non-verbal behavior and expressions of competence — can be unhelpful and even harmful to frontline encounters with employees. Employees are often advised to apologize, express empathy, maintain a pleasant demeanor and demonstrate that they understand the problem, all known as “relational work”. Such pleasantries are effective when encouraging a customer to enjoy a service experience, but are less useful when a customer expects a solution to a service problem. In fact, small talk like “how is your day so far?” can be perceived as insensitive to their problem or as an unwanted distraction from its solution. Customers can perceive excessive positivity — which stands in contrast to their own dismay — as a deterrent to problem-solving. 

Instead, customers reward problem-solving competence of frontline agents that is focused on generating solutions, even when they aren’t able to solve the customer’s problem in the end. Relational skills can be appropriate in the early part of the interaction — our findings indicate 5 to 7 seconds as adequate — but must be followed quickly by a focus on solving the customer’s problem, offering multiple options for resolution that allow the customer to retain some sense of control over a difficult situation. 

Sensing — Seeking — Settling

There’s often time pressure bearing down on frontline employees when they encounter a dissatisfied customer. Crafting the appropriate response requires quick action and improvisation in situations that are often emotionally charged by customer anger, increasing the potential for miscommunication and misperception. For customers, these kinds of encounters can leave an enduring memory trace, one that they’ll use to determine their future relationship with that company. What a company views as a “complaint” is not that at all — its a problem to be solved. Not surprisingly, leading companies invest significant resources to get customer problem-solving right.

Our research suggests the need for an approach to effective problem solving that we call Sensing—Seeking—Settling. The sensing phase requires frontline employees to gain comprehension of the problem including its nature, significance and consequence for the customer. Seeking is the generation of ideas and possibilities for problem-solving. This is the time when the employee must demonstrate competence and ingenuity. This phase should involve a collaborative process with the customer that allows for objections and joint solution identification. Settling seeks closure by clarifying, confirming, and carrying out a solution and, if necessary, re-examining or re-creating alternatives.

A moderate level of relational work in the sensing phase is appropriate, as stated above, about five to seven seconds. But once the interaction moves into the seeking phase, that kind of relational work has an increasingly negative effect on these interactions. Repeatedly apologizing, engaging in non-problem-solving topics or constantly expressing empathy can raise customer concerns about timely progress toward finding an appropriate solution. In the settling phase, frontline employees have to find a solution for the customer and execute it without delay. 

Understanding this sensing-seeking-solving approach when facing a dissatisfied customer can help companies elevate customer experiences when they, like United did, falter and fail to deliver satisfying customer outcomes. Training for frontline employees should encourage with a short duration of relational work, with a quick transition into gaining enough information to start working on the problem. Throughout the interaction, frontline employees must demonstrate competence and show clearly that they are focused on getting the problem solved rather than building relationships.

Lasting impact — good or bad — to a brand 

As a counterpoint to United’s customer service debacle, look to the high satisfaction ratings obtained by Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom year after year. Southwest Airlines designs and implements its training and coaching via problem-solving approaches rather than disciplinary actions. Nordstrom, meanwhile, allows its frontline staff the flexibility to use judgment while resolving customers’ problems. Their displays of competence and problem-solving ability are a source of strategic differentiation and competitive advantage.

After the furor caused by Munoz’s initial statement, United tried again with a revised statement that was more balanced between empathy (“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard”), a commitment to problem-solving (“I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”) and a sense of urgency (“We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.”)

In his first television interview after the incident with ABC News, he acknowledged the inadequacy of his initial statement, restated his apologies and was quick to acknowledge the dearth of common sense in the company’s frontline procedures: “It was a system failure,” he said. “We do empower our frontline employees to a degree, but we need to expand and adjust those policies to allow more common sense.” 

What could have been an opportunity to display competence and employ creative problem-solving at the beginning of the interaction with Dr. Dao ended up being a public relations crisis. Customers’ memories can be long, and in United’s case, time will tell if the damage is too extensive to undo.